BAGHDAD, IRAQ - The American soldiers smashed through 68-year-old Ali Ahmeds door at 2:30 in the morning.
According to Ali, the Americans roughed up one of his four sons who had gone downstairs to see what all the commotion was about. Then they handcuffed everyone except his wife and 12-year-old boy.
The soldiers ransacked their tiny apartment, took what little money they had and finally hauled Ali and three of his sons off to what was formerly known as Saddam Husseins Presidential Palace, a sprawling compound not far from Alis home.
For the next month, Ali essentially disappeared from the face of the earth. His wife and young son, Hassan, tried desperately to find him, but without success. There were no phone calls, no letters, no hints of whether he was alive or dead or would ever be returning home.
A few weeks after finally being released, Ali, a carpenter by trade, sat in his sweltering apartment above a ramshackle store in a rundown Baghdad neighborhood and offered flat Pepsi to two visitors who had come to hear his bizarre but all too common story.
The living room wall behind him was badly cracked and, except for a garish red and gold clock in the shape of a rooster, completely bare. He has not been able to work since his ordeal, exhausted by the physical and mental stress, and anguished that three of his sons are still somewhere in US custody.
Ali said he was handcuffed for four days at the palace while sitting in the blistering heat with his sons. He was never told why he was arrested, was interrogated only once, on the first day, and asked just two questions: "What is your name?" and "Do you have any enemies?" He said he has no idea why he was asked if he had any enemies, and claims he has none.
Ali and his sons were eventually moved to the Baghdad soccer stadium, where they stayed for more than a week with about 30 other prisoners in an abandoned store room. The water, no longer warm as it was at the palace, was still tepid, but their handcuffs were finally removed.
A week later, they were transferred to the Baghdad International Airport, where US forces have constructed a makeshift prison. Ali and two of his sons were put in a tent with about 50 other prisoners. The third son, Omar, who sold pottery from a little stand in front of the stairs leading up to the family apartment, was taken away. Ali's tent shared just two latrines with five other tents. The filth, he said, was overwhelming.
A diabetic, Ali finally collapsed from the stress and lack of medicine. Unable to speak or even stand, he was hospitalized and treated for severe dehydration and given drugs for his illness.
After six days, Ali recovered and was moved to the notorious Abu Graeb prison, about 45 minutes from Baghdad. Again, he was put into a tent with about 40 other prisoners. But this time his sons were not transferred with him.
Eleven days after arriving at Abu Graeb, Ali was told he would leave the following morning. He had, by then, been in custody for almost a full month. But he says he was never allowed any contact with the outside world, and was never told why he was arrested. His prisoner identification card, assigned to him soon after he was detained, gives the reason for his arrest as "Baath Party,"
in English, not Arabic.
A longtime family friend insists, however, that Ali has never been even remotely politically involved. And even if he was, prior membership in the Baath Party by a poor carpenter is not in and of itself a crime. The friend, who was outraged at the arrests, also insisted that the family has never been in any sort of trouble with the law.
Ali's wife, Lemiah Ibrahim, said she was rebuffed by the local police about her husband's whereabouts and ran into a brick wall at the Red Cross, but never approached the American military because, she said, she was too afraid.
"Why would she be afraid of us?" asked one relatively high-level official with the Coalition Provisional Authority's media office when he was told this story. The official seemed sincere, but the maddening ignorance of his question illustrated a growing worry here in Iraq that the Americans have no idea how they are perceived by ordinary Iraqis.
According to numerous aid workers and local and international activists, Ali's abduction story is far from rare. The Americans, criticized throughout the world for not providing enough security for the people of Iraq, have detained thousands of people without formally charging them, at least hundreds for undefined political crimes.
"What they're doing is completely stupid," snapped one experienced private security worker recently. "They don't provide enough security generally, and the few times they do they go all the way overboard."
"They've occupied all of Saddam's palaces, so maybe that has caused them to act like him," suggested one Iraqi, who pointed out that the ousted dictator regularly arrested people in the middle of the night and whisked them away without informing anyone why they were detained, where they were or if they were ever coming home again.
The Americans bristle at the suggestion that they are "disappearing" Iraqi citizens, and claim that one reason prisoners' families have not been able to find their loved ones is because the American tracking system could not cope with the various English spellings of the detainees' Arabic names. The system is fixed now, they say, and the families should be able to locate at least some of their relatives. But other detainees, and the Americans won't say who those are or how many they might be, will remain in an informational black hole.
American soldiers guarding the Abu Graeb prison, the final stop on Ali's journey, said the facility could not provide any information about Ali's former status. A large sign near them warned Iraqis that they would not be allowed to visit prisoners and that there was not any means of finding information about inmates.
"You'll have to contact 'Seemah,'" said one of the soldiers. When asked what "Seemah" was, and where it was, the soldier said he had no idea.
It turns out "Seemah" is the Civilian Military Affairs unit, or CMA. The CMA is where the Americans keep the computerized list of Iraqi prisoners. But if Americans guarding one of the country's main prisons don't even know what "Seemah" is, it's doubtful that many Iraqis do, either.
As for the conditions of Ali's confinement, an American military spokesman sa id prisoners are "treated as human beings and given all comforts."
As of yet, there is no judicial system in Iraq, so there are absolutely zero checks and balances on the powers of American troops and the Iraqi police. A spokesman for the US military said there is no timetable for getting the judiciary up and running.
Asked why he thinks he and his sons were arrested, Ali is completely at a loss. The only thing he can think of, he said, was that after the local Muslim immam asked the neighborhood to turn in the looters who had decimated the area, his son Omar informed on a few of the worst characters. Perhaps, Ali said, the looters took their revenge by fingering his family to the Americans.
- Rich Miller is a Chicago-based journalist.